Partnering with Parents

Want a booster club that is creative, energetic, and never issues a complaint? Knowing how to work with parent volunteers can make all the difference.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. He can be reached at KBerkowitz@MomentumMedia.com

Athletic Management, 17.3, April/May 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1703/parents.htm

What can a strong booster club do for an athletic program? At Lebanon High School in Ohio, boosters typically raise about $30,000 a year and recently funded a $300,000 fieldhouse at the school. At Hoover High School in Alabama, the 500-member football booster club raises between $300,000 and $400,000 in a good year.

Even if your goals are much more modest, having a strong booster club is a must in today’s world of high school athletics. And maintaining a strong fundraising group entails working effectively with parent volunteers.

But how do you find members who will follow through time and again? And how do you keep them motivated project after project, year after year?

A STRONG STRUCTURE
The first step in making a volunteer-based system work is to create a structure that will get as many people involved as possible. The setup can vary depending on your community and the specific needs of your program, but the key is to have a format in place that is consistent and clear. People tend to be more willing to join a group if they can easily understand how it works and where they will fit in.

Lebanon High School has one all-sports booster club, which Athletic Director and Head Football Coach Dave Brausch says works well in serving the entire athletic program. To ensure fairness, Brausch includes at least one parent from each sport team in the decision-making process. "Each coach chooses a parent to represent their program, so no team feels left out," says Brausch. "They come to our monthly meetings, which is when we divide the work, and they report back to their teams. Staffing our events is a group effort, so we rely on the group to make the decisions."

Parents of Lebanon’s winter and spring athletes typically volunteer to work at fall games, just as parents of fall and spring athletes are responsible for winter sports contests. That way, parents of each team support the other teams, building connections across sports and providing boosters with a broader view of the athletic program.

At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., Activities Director Melody Modell also uses the one-club format and has parent-representatives of each sport present at meetings. "This allows me to balance the needs of all our student-athletes in the school," she explains. "At the beginning of the year, I always go over Title IX and the criteria for distributing booster funds fairly."

Brookwood High School in Georgia has booster clubs for each individual sport, which are all overseen by a volunteer executive board. The booster clubs are structured as pyramids, with sub-committee members reporting to committee members, who report to officers, who report to the president of the club, who reports to the executive board and the athletic director. Brookwood’s largest group of boosters, the football team’s Touchdown Club, has 22 committees, with as many as 25 people working on some of the larger fundraising events.

"The key to building an effective booster club is what I call ‘committee-izing,’" says Brookwood Athletics and Activities Director Dave Hunter, who is also President of Hunter Athletic Consulting, which specializes in providing fundraising advice for high school athletics programs.

Hoover High School recently restructured its booster club system and now incorporates a sport-specific model, which Head Football Coach and former Athletic Director Rush Propst has found to be effective. "The change gives each head coach a chance to oversee his or her own booster club, and gives each club its own identity," says Propst. "I think separate booster clubs work better because there’s more ownership for the parents. It’s turned us into a club that really goes out and gets things done. We know what the budget is, we know what goals we need to reach, and we know what we’ve got to do to get there."

For his football team’s club, Propst breaks up the challenge among different subsets of parents. Freshman parents are in charge of stadium parking. Sophomore parents handle concessions, along with taking responsibility for a specific set of annual fundraisers. The parents of junior players concentrate on selling advertisements for the game programs and stadium signage, and the parents of senior players are primarily responsible for selling memberships to the booster club.

"That way, each class has its own identity," says Propst. "For our freshman parents, we’re trying to indoctrinate them into the program, and for our senior parents, who have a lot of other things to think about, we’re trying to give them a relaxing year. We give our toughest tasks to the sophomore and junior parents. Everybody knows what they’re accountable for."

ATTRACTING VOLUNTEERS
Once you’ve got the right structure in place, attracting volunteers to your booster club entails having a vision people can embrace. "Parents have to buy into your program, and the best way to achieve that is to get them excited by your plans," says Hunter. "You’ve got to communicate up front what kind of program you want and what you’re doing to make it better for your student-athletes.

"Your energy has to be contagious," he continues. "You’ve got to be excited about whatever you’re trying to do, whether it’s buying equipment or building a new stadium."

Another key to getting parents to sign on is to allow for a wide range of time commitments. Some boosters will be eager to provide leadership for the majority of your fundraisers, and some will only be able to help out at a handful of events. Create ample opportunities for both types, with tasks divided into clearly defined responsibilities so people can anticipate the time commitment that each will require.

Hunter also believes in asking for help in a formal way. "Don’t ever solicit volunteers at a general meeting and don’t ever ask for volunteers over the telephone," he says. "Meet with them face to face, and say, ‘I need you to help me make this a better place for our kids.’ In 39 years of using that technique, I’ve never been turned down."

It also helps to find leaders who are good at bringing more people into the fold. "You start with a leader who’s a dynamic, energetic, positive person," says Hunter. "Then that person gets more people involved, and they in turn get even more people involved. I want the leaders of the booster club to be people who are able to rally others around the cause."

Hunter suggests that the booster club president not be in charge of major events, but instead delegate that responsibility to vice presidents. "We don’t want to wear anyone out," he explains. "So the president is in charge of leadership and oversight, then the vice presidents each take on a major fundraiser—a golf tournament, a lift-a-thon, a Valentine’s Day dance, a casino night."

MOTIVATING BOOSTERS
Once you’ve chosen those leaders, it’s important to take a step back and allow them to be responsible for the booster club. "The key to motivating parents," says Propst, "is giving them ownership."

Boosters taking ownership is something Modell also advocates. "At our school, they run the meetings, they set the agenda, and they give me a spot to talk to the group," she says. "I’m a participating member, and I stay for the whole meeting to answer any questions that come up, but I’m not the person in charge. I haven’t ever run a booster meeting, nor do I plan to.

"I’m there as a resource, keeping boosters informed about things that are happening in the school and the district," continues Modell. "But they’re the ones who are out in the community, working hard to raise money, and I want them to take ownership in what they do. When boosters take ownership, they can create events based on their strengths."

To foster ownership, Modell expects the boosters to plan their own fundraisers, introduce new events, and give input on how monies should be spent. Modell encourages the group to design events that will benefit the largest number of students, bring together parents from the widest possible range of teams, and give the club the greatest sense of satisfaction.

"In the spring, they run an invitational track meet that raises a good amount of money for our school," says Modell. "But the reason the boosters love it so much is that it gives student-athletes one last chance to get a qualifying time for the district and regional meets. So in addition to the fact that they’re earning money, the boosters feel like they’ve offered something to the athletes in lots of communities, not just our own. In another fundraiser, we bring in health professionals to provide low-cost physicals for our student-athletes—or anyone else who shows up. So again, they’re raising money by offering something for our own kids, but they’re also making this service available to the entire community.

"I would never have thought of doing either of those things," continues Modell. "But by letting the boosters use their strengths, giving them ownership, and letting them think outside the box, we’ve been very successful."

Hunter also suggests dedicating each fundraiser to a tangible goal. "You have to make sure that each fundraiser has a very specific purpose," he says. "For example, we might hold a lift-a-thon to improve our weightroom. Fundraisers don’t do very well if you just say, ‘We’re going to raise this money for the Touchdown Club.’ There needs to be a singular reason for that fundraiser, and the benefits to the athletes have to be made very clear."

CLEAR COMMUNICATIONS
Without the accountability of a supervisor-employee relationship, working with booster club members requires strong communication. The first message should identify what the boosters’ role is and what the athletic director’s role is. Hunter explains to his boosters that because he is responsible for the direction of the athletic program, it is vital for the booster club to respect his decisions and oversight.

"I tell them that they’re in charge of each fundraising project, but ultimately I’m in charge of the big picture," he says. "There should be no fundraising going on that I don’t know about."

Boosters also need to see themselves as fundraisers—not as de facto coaches, consultants, or parents trying to gain more playing time for their children. At Chantilly (Va.) High School, Director of Student Activities Donna King emphasizes that point by avoiding talking to boosters about discipline, playing time, coaching evaluations, or anything outside of booster activities. "It’s not always easy, and you have to realize that not everyone is going to be happy all the time," says King. "When parents are unhappy, we can listen to them, but they need to remember that we’re the professionals. We’re the ones who are educated in athletic administration and trained to keep the entire program’s best interests in mind."

Hunter believes in being direct from the very beginning. "We tell our boosters, ‘We’re here to do what’s best for all of the kids in our program,’" he says. "‘If that’s not your motive, you’re in the wrong place, and you can either fall in or move on, and there won’t be any hard feelings.’ Most people have no problem with that."

At Thomas Jefferson, Modell delivers a similar message. "Members are told that their purpose is to support the activities at our school," she says. "Their responsibility is not to hire and fire coaches or establish coaching philosophy, nor will their involvement affect playing time. And I tell my coaches, ‘What you do and how you coach should not reflect in any way the involvement of parents in the booster club.’

"I’m sure there are still boosters out there who think their children should get special treatment," continues Modell. "But for the most part, people have good intentions, and if they have any expectations about playing time, they’re usually too embarrassed to vocalize them."

Another area to communicate about is how monies raised will be spent. Modell explains that final decisions are up to the coach and athletic director, but she does communicate how those choices are being made. "The boosters know that I’m ultimately responsible for making sure all spending is fair and equitable," she says. "And they know that because I present my budget to them and we talk about it.

"When I create the budget, the first thing I do is ask the coaches what they need to compete safely. Second, I ask each of them what we need to present their team well: Are our uniforms falling apart? Do we have bags? Do we have warmups? Once we get through that, we go back and spread the wealth," Modell continues. "In some years, there will be a little something for every team, and in others, there will be a rotation: If baseball got a new pitching machine last year, softball will get a new one this year. Our goal is to be fair, and the boosters understand that."

Brausch follows the same path at Lebanon. "I can’t guarantee that everyone thinks the money is being distributed fairly," says Brausch. "But I can keep communicating with the boosters about how I make my decisions. It all comes down to treating people right and letting them know you care about all of them."

That also means communicating your appreciation. "The biggest thing," says Brausch, "is just to treat your boosters well. Let them know when they’ve done a good job, and do your best to make them feel appreciated, whether that means giving them a season pass or a pat on the back. If they know how much their contributions have meant to your program, they’ll keep coming back."



Sidebar: STARTING YOUNG

At Lebanon (Ohio) High School, Athletic Director Dave Brausch helps prepare his all-sports booster club for the future by asking parents of elementary school and middle school athletes to join. "I try to work from the ground up, getting parents excited about the booster club when their kids are young," says Brausch, who is also the Head Football Coach at Lebanon. "As early as first grade, parents know what goes into our program. We’ve been able to get them involved in our booster club very early in their children’s lives, and we’re now starting to see those benefits."

As the father of four young children, Brausch spreads his message by networking with other parents and using word of mouth. Having the additional volunteers helps him lighten the load, and it keeps his boosters from burning out. At the same time, it establishes a broader base for his club, builds a sense of community, and fosters a sense of identity for parents whose children are still years away from competing at the high school level.

"With our Pee Wee organizations helping out at some of our high school events, we’ve basically got a 12-grade effort in our booster club, instead of the four-grade effort that you see at most schools," says Brausch. "They work our Friday night football games knowing that when their kids get to high school, the next generation of Pee Wee parents will help them out."


Sidebar: A DROPPED BALL

If you have good leaders and communicate effectively, most boosters follow through. But what should you do when boosters don’t complete a job?

"When people offer to do something, they almost always follow through with it unless there’s an extenuating circumstance," says Melody Modell, Activities Director at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. "So my first approach is to ask whether they need help. I’ll say, ‘I’m not trying to pry into your personal life, but is there something we can do to support you?’ At other times, someone else in the group will just naturally gravitate toward helping them out, and sometimes new friendships are forged from it. We try to protect their dignity, and if someone is not succeeding, we always offer help."

At Lebanon (Ohio) High School, Athletic Director and Head Football Coach Dave Brausch has a similar approach: If volunteers are failing to complete their tasks, he takes care not to criticize them, but offers them the support they need to succeed. "You’ve got to be delicate," says Brausch. "If I’m concerned about whether a job is going to be completed, I tell the booster, ‘I see you’re struggling a little bit with this. So I’m going to get so-and-so to help you, because it’s obviously more than a one-person job.’

"The best way to handle it is to give them help, instead of treating them like they’ve dropped the ball," continues Brausch. "Let them know you appreciate the work they’ve done, and that you’re going to provide some extra help for them. Get somebody else to pick up the slack, fix the mistake, and move on. Make the best of the situation and keep moving forward."